Archive for July, 2013

Nungwi to Stone Town by dalla-dalla: A short adventure

So there I was, stuck in Nungwi, Zanzibar without any money. To be honest: Nungwi is a shithole. Perhaps if I had come two decades ago -before the bulk of the Western world had decided to change this tropical Eden into something that reminded me of the worst parts of Ibiza- it would have been beautiful: white sand beaches, turquoise ocean, dhows sailing past, but now. Horrible! It is utterly ruined! First came the Italian package deals, every day four, five, even six airplanes filled with them. Quickly followed by the Germans, Americans, Scandinavians and eventually the scourge of every beautiful holiday destination:… the English… (tu tu tu tuuuu) The beach is crammed full with luxury resorts, swimming pools, cottage houses and cocktail bars, each stretch of beach exactely the same as the last. They all sell the same food, the shops sell the same crappy Masai paintings and jewelery. Talking about Masai: they roam the beach by the dozens. How did they get here from the Serengeti you ask? I have no idea. They seem just a tiny bit out of place walking the Zanzibar beaches wearing sunglasses and selling African ganga.

How did I end up here? Honestly, I don’t know. Somebody told me they had great grilled fish, which they did! Had it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, 2 days in a row. And then I was broke, because they ask exuberant prices, and I am very bad at bargaining. My heart is too soft for it. I had exactely 2000 Tanzanian Shillings left, which miraculously is the price for a dala-dala ride to Stone Town, the only place on the Island with a functioning ATM. Traveling with only a debitcard, it’s a challange.

I chose my dala-dala (transport so good, they named it twice!) carefully, because I didn’t want to get stuck in a sweaty van without any windows for an hour and a half. I spotted a pick-up truck dalla that looked OK. An angry looking guy in a traditional kanzu, the long muslim dress men often wear in Tanzania, stood in front of it waiting for passengers. I had learned from my previous dalla rides how to do it. Sit at the exit, pay when you get there and most importantly, hold your hand against the ceiling whenever the ride gets bumpy, because otherwise you will arrive unconcious and bleeding.

The dala starts its journey and it is nice and empty. Not for long I know, but for now I am enjoying the wind, the smell of spices and ocean. The driver is speeding. The angry looking kanzu man starts speaking to me. “I am owner this dala-dala!” He nods sternly and presses his hand against his chest. I don’t now how to repsond. “It’s a very nice dala.” I lie. It smells and is very uncomfortable, even after 5 minutes of driving my ass feels like wood. I know soon the numbness will start, looking forward to it. “No dala! dala dala! dala dala!” He shouts at me and hits the side of the pick up with a tin can.  The driver sees this as a sign to stop, and breaks abruptly. I am unprepared. I fall and slide all the way to the front. The owner is laughing maniacially. He shouts in Swahili to the driver who shouts back while stepping on the gas until the dala has reached his usual terrifying speed.

After a while the dala is packed full. I count 33 people. The owner is sitting comfortably in the front. I don’t blame him. In front of me sits an older women and an adorbale little girl on her lap, veiled upto the point where her cute little face is the only thing visible in the wavey pink fabric of her kikoi. She stares at me, but whenever I look back she looks away. I try to make her smile, but she is too shy.

At a certain point a taxi is behind us, carrying some Western tourists. I see them in their comfortable seats. They see me crammed in the back of local transport. I try to look as National Geographicy as possible, staring off into the distance spice fields. I know they payed 40000 schillings for their taxi ride, and I will only pay 2000. Pepijn 1, stupid tourists 0.

More people in the dala dala. Really? Where are they going to go I wonder. Hanging on the back and sides apparently. My view of the surroundings is replaced by armpits and kneecaps. three layers of people are piled on the back. I recount. 40? 43? Even more? Still the driver is putting the petal to the floor. One man is leisurly talking on his phone while hanging on with one arm. What balls.

A police checkpoint. All the hangers-on drop from the dala, and the driver slows down. The police look immaculate in their white suits and shiny shoes. They all carry sticks too short for walking. The owner is pulled out of the front seat and thrown against a police van. A police man start shouting to him while he puts his hands on his shoulders and presses down. All of a sudden he looks like a small helpless man. Everyone in the dala starts whispering and making dissaproving noises. A man next to me informs me: “Zanzibar police very bad, Always money, money, money…” I see. It takes 15 minutes before the owner buldges. I spot some 1000 schilling notes change hands.

Our journey continues! I try to take my iPhone out for some pictures, but I physically can’t get it out of my pocket because we are so packed together. Images of sardines are going through my mind. Talking about animals: A man has brought two full grown goats into the dala, and one baby goat. Adorable! It’s practically o my lap and makes bizarre human sounding noises. I remember seeing something on youtube about this.

Another police checkpoint. Now they are more agressive, threatening to hit my friend the dala owner with their colonial looking wooden beating sticks. I am starting to hate them too. Their behaviour, their attire, the way of moving: slowly, dominant. A police man with a shotgun joins in on the belitteling of the dala owner. I respect how long he takes before he pays up. This isn’t the police, this is maffia. I mean, sure, I understand that dala dala transport is dangerous, private, and unsupervised and that the government is cracking down on it. But where is the alternative? I haven’t seen any form of public transport. Bastards! During our trip, we pass 3 more police checkpoints…

We are nearing Zanzibar Town. People start getting on and off the dala more frequently. I notice that you can ride it for free if you hang on to it for a short while, so many people do so. One guy carrying three live chicken in his hand tries to jump off while the dala is moving. He trips and rolls into the bushes. I can hear him swearing and the chicken screaming over the revving of the engine.

Some women start shouting in the front. A man is apparently indecent to one of them. He is kicked and punched by everyone in the dala as he is pushed out. Once out, some women on the side of the road immediately know what’s going on and start swearing at him. I am loving this.

Finally we arrive in the Marketplace of Zanzibar Town. My back is sending emergency signals. My eyes are burning from all the fumes and dust. My butt has literally died and I have multiple lumps on my head. Imagine taking this way of transport every day. Imagine being the owner or the driver… I am but a soft Dutch boy, these are hardened people from Africa!


Matemwe, Zanzibar

photo (2)For a Dutchman, or for any north-west European person I guess, stepping onto a pearl white beach, and dipping your toes for the first time into a turquoise ocean, a soft wind blowing in your face, the sounds of fisherman and the gentle rolling of the waves: It is bliss. Like stepping into a postcard. I don’t care how cliché that expression is. Matemwe is that place. Paradise.

We arrived here from the capital of Zanzibar, Stone Town, by using the islands native transport: the dalla-dalla, an upgraded pick-up truck, fitted with benches and, for some mysterious reason, a tiled roof. They drive like the devil, and pack up to 30 people plus luggage (rice, furniture, cattle). We moved to the front of the dalla-dalla. An unwise decision we would find out. Every time the driver steps on the break, the full load of people sitting in the dalla-dalla pushes up against us and into the back of the cabine. I do believe I have become a bit slimmer during the 1 hour ride it took us to get to Matemwe, the end of the line.

We are received by Ally, the manager of Key’s Bungalows. He is a short Indian looking man, balding at the front, but compensating by growing out his hair at the back. It gives him a greasy look, the kind of look you would expect from the owner of a quircky backpack place. Jovial, smiling, he greets us: “Hey man, you looking cool, you looking like a cool guy!” Cool, he says? I am litterally dripping sweat, heaving a backpack, pain in every limb of my body. But ok, I’ll take his compliments, albeit a bit premature considering we met a moment ago. I  look around: A high palm leaf roof constructed around a wooden frame, oil lamps as lighting, Manu Chao bongo-bongos through crappy speakers. A small bar with flags from different countries, some locals with fake expensive sunglasses sit lazily at tables made from old fishing boats. I’ve already been to this place, in Thailand, India, Indonesia, South Africa. I feel right at home.

I spend the day strolling around the beach. The sunlight is so bright I can hardly see. It is reflected by the incredibly white sand. I’ve never seen sand so white. It is low tide. The water is about a meter deep all the way to the old coral reef. Over there, large waves crash into it, making it dangerous to swim there. I float around in the lukewarm water. The ripples of the sea water are copied into the sand. Seaweed floats around me and tiny zebra fish join me, nibbling at my feet. Fisherman drag large nets across the low water. Others hit the water with sticks, scaring the fish into the net. Women harvest seaweed, throwing it across their backs. Their buttocks proudly pointing upward to the painfully blue sky. The sun is intense, even at this early hour. On the beach, young children kick around something that resembles a football. They clothes are colourful and torn, faces covered in the fine white sand. All around the beach are scattered the sun bleached wooden fishing boats. They have to manoeuvre the shallow waters, and are fitted with two catamaran like floating rafts on each side. I admire them, they are simple, effective, not build to last more than two or three fishing seasons. Some fishermen are busy perfecting them, burning the outside of their boat to make them water tight.

I talk to an old man on the beach. his English is excellent. He tells me in his younger days he used to take tourists out diving and dolphin watching. I aks him about the economy of the little fishing village: The wood for the boats they acquire from another Island, Pemba. The fisherman, weather permitting, go out each day to fish and sell their fish on the fish market next to our hostel. People flock to it from neighbouring villages each day. They catch red snapper, tuna, sea snakes and many others I don’t recognize. If they’re lucky, they catch a shark in the deeper, colder waters far out at sea. I imagine the tiny boats on the enormous swells of the vast Indian Ocean. Furthermore, he tells me, the villagers collect coconuts, passion fruit and oranges. They buy rice from Stone Town. The simplicity of it all charms me. No long supply lines. Everything local. What else do you need when you live in Paradise, right?

That evening I walk along the beach to scout out possible restaurants. I find nothing except a lot of abanoned building projects, mostly because of lack of investment I am told. The economic crisis has also touched Paradise, it seems. The ruins have pillars and ancient Arabic looking architecture. It looks like it could be hundreds of years old, but I know that isn’t true. To the north, some luxury resorts. Infinity pools, beautiful restaurants, cottages with bubble baths and laundry service. Prices ranging from 400 dollars a night to 2000 dollars a night. (We pay a meagre 40 dollars a night)

A strong wind blows from the sea. The beach is empty. The fishing boats have returned and are wobbling on the incoming tide. I walk into the village directly behind the beach for the first time. I am shocked. People live in stone shacks. Many of them abandoned and crumbling. Roofs, if they have any, are made from wood and metal plates, no glass in the windows. Goats, chicken and cows roam around freely. Garbage litters the narrows spaces between the shacks. I spot a goat chewing on a plastic bag. No roads. Children are everywhere, from the houses I hear babies cry, women (I haven’t seen any yet, except for the children) are talking softly. I peek through windows: the sand gets into everything, some blankets for beds, no musquito nets. People eat fish, coconuts. The infinity pools, luxury restaurants with Wifi and drinks called Coconut Kiss and Mega Margarita, it all seems absurd. The contrast is just to big.

Does none of the money made by these hotels and resorts, even our simple hostel run by Ally, does it not reach the village behind? Do these people need help? Are they healthy? No. Malaria is rampant on Zanzibar, especially among children. Most girls are married by 15. Because of this many girls die in childbirth. Most people only had a few years of education. There is only one well for water in the village. Zanzibar is poor, even in comparison with the rest of Tanzania. Poverty, patriarchism and a lack of education and lack of institutions for the common people are evident. But wait! there is an office where tourists can go when they are scammed by local merchants for selling them fake spices.

I walk back to my hostel. Everywhere people yell Jambo! Hello! Happy, smiling faces. Sitting at the bar I have another beer, and I am already looking forward to swimming in the ocean tomorrow morning.

photo (4)

“Wonderfully cigarettes, Embassy light!” -how not to buy cigarettes in Dar es Salaam

As I am waiting in the blistering Tanzanian sun for the ferry to take me from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar, I crave a cigarette, yet I possess none, and am also oblivious as to where I could get some.  I ask an eager looking man with red teeth and a kufi if I could possibly obtain a package somewhere. Enthusiastically, he requests 5000 Tanzanian schillings (a little more than 2 euro’s) runs off, disregarding the busy traffic, and dissappears into a narrow alley across the street. Seeing a man take off with my money, I look a bit worried, which is noticed by some men standing nearby. “Jambo, do not worry, this man is our friend”, he is trust!” I am put at ease by this statement, obviously, if somebody not only can be trusted, but actually is trust, the embodiment of it, I shan’t worry a bit. We talk for a while, mainly about cigarettes (wonderfully cigarettes, Embassy light!) and Tanzanian women. According to one man they are ‘most juicyness’, and I believe him. Another claims they can bite your penis off with their vagina. I doubt it, but take his warning serious nonetheless.

After 15 minutes my kufi-wearing, red-teethed friend returns with my cigarettes. The package has been opened though, and some cigarettes are missing. I point this out to my new friends. Not to worry! they respond, it is normal in Tanzania for packages to be previously opened. Government regulations, another assures me. I light my much anticipated cigarette and share some with my new friends and they happily accept. My kufi-wearing friend respectfully declines. He explains: “Much running make me thirsty!” I nod. I have also experienced thirst after much running. My nodding however is not seen as a satisfying respons. The second man, a pleasant fat fellow, tells me I should give him some more money, so his friend can procure a refreshing beverage, to quench the thirst caused be the running for my cigarettes. I understand, but I respectfully decline. I explain to them that I never required this good man to run for me. He could also have done his job strolling leisurly and I would have been equally grateful. Thirdly, I point out the fact that cigarettes are only 2500 schilling and I have yet to receive some change.

The three men quickly discuss their stragtegy in Swahili: They come to a new approach. The third, a bony man wearing a jellaba solemnly speaks: “These cigarettes are very special, they are import cigarettes! Please, some more money sir.” It takes but one look at the package to see it: Made in Tanzania. I read it out loud. The men are baffled. They did not expect this turn of events. Another round of intens discussions in Swahili takes place. It seems that concensus among the three men cannot be reached. A vague attempt to renew the ‘import cigarettes strat’ is attempted: they now tell me that the barcode on the package somehow means that it actually is import, and thus more valuable. I can do nothing but shake my head and smile. The men are getting a bit sour. Angry looks, whispering of insults (I can only guess at those) and some more men join our little group, if I wasn’t so sure of the friendlyness of the Tanzanian people, I would feel a bit threatened by now.

As a sign of peace, I decide to buy a bottle of water for my friend, the kufi man. Somehow, this has angered them even more. Yelling ensues. Obscene gestures, even some grabbing of clothes, mine to be precise. Our group swells to dozens. I am as baffled as they were. What has happened? Why the sudden consternation? “Ramadan! Ramadan!” they yell. Offering water to the kufi-wearing man was apparently very insulting, I was tempting him to break his holy vow of fasting! I try to remind them of the cigarette they smoked, and of the fact that they, themselves, had requested more money for a drink. To no avail. I am doomed to be the centre of a religeous row. Luckily, the ferry blows its horn in anticipation of departure. I sneak away into the blue glass building. Inside people are curiously looking at the commotion in front of the doors, a shotgun-weilding guard is standing up and looks concerned. “What’s going on out there?” an American guy asks me. “I do not now, good man”, I reply. These Tanzanians are crazy.

Harabi, Dar es Salaam

dar garbage

Aaahh… the blissful feeling of arriving at a place that is totally new and strange. There just isn’t anything that can compare. You feel your brain open up like a flower, totally uninhibited by any preconceptions that you might have. You are like a child, absorbing, learning, your senses at maximum capacity. To always be in this state, that is what I desire. I am starting to unerstand the eternal traveller…

Here is a riddle: It sounds like the Middle East, it smells like India and it looks like Africa. What is it? We arrived at Dar es Salaam yesterday and were welcomed by the lovely smell of garbage, ocean and badly burned fuel. It brought back memories of Thailand, India, Lebanon and Egypt -all at once- but with a tinge of something else, something unique. That must be Tanzania, that sliver of strangeness, the thing I want to explore. I am once again reminded of the power of association that smells can induce. Some people are visually stimulated, some by sound. I must have a smelly brain, because I am smelling all the time: the people, the food, the sewage (Dar has some issues here…), the garbage and the harbour.

I asked a rickshaw driver (hurray! rickshaws!) to take me around the city. He had a hard time understanding that I had no wish to go to a particular destination and at every crossroads he anxiously asked if this was my stop. “No! Keep driving good man!” To no avail. He seemed terribly frustrated with my lack of direction. To keep him quiet, I asked to go to the city dump. I have always wanted see an African dump and Dar felt like a safe enough city to to this. He was appalled, but I stuffed his pockets with enough Tanzanian schillings, and all of a sudden he was completely willing to take me to any dirty, garbage filled corner of the city. Garbage! Lovely!

Why do I have this urge to expose myself to African filth? I don’t know, but I finally have the feeling that in Dar el Salaam I can shake off the layers of whiteness and Europeanness. My inability to experience something real, something unfiltered (I am writing this in the squeaky clean lobby of the Hilton hotel in oyster bay… sigh…), it takes some uneasy urban exploring. But I am getting there…

The New Largo Colliery

My beautiful pictureIt is impossible to understand South Africa and its people and history without understanding the mining industry. Without mining, there is no power, no production, no industry. Mining provides jobs for every layer in society -from the unskilled poor to the middle class engineers to the rich owners. It takes from the earth that which cannot grow back: Gold, diamonts, coal, platinum. Above all, mining is vergankelijk, it sometimes burns bright and brief, and leaves an empty shell, a scar in the earth. A story to illustrate:

My aunt, Judy Moira van Eeghen, told me about her childhood growing up in a small mining settlement called the New Largo Colliery, some 120 kilometers east of Pretoria. Her father, Trevor Snowdowne Wilmot, was the manager of the mine from 1973 until 1986. It was an old fashioned shaft mine, a narrow corridor into the earth. Unskilled workers descended into the coaldust filled darkness and brought up coal for the powerplants that fueled the South African economy during the last years of Apartheid.

She remembers her father as a perfectionist and a hard worker. He made sure everything runned smoothly. Perfectly mowed lawns, green and lush, and white houses in the sun. Her father being the manager, they owned the largest house (see picture provided below). Foreman and teachers owned smaller houses and the unskilled black miners lived in the smallest houses, but not in poverty. All employees lived in the settlement, and everyone living there worked at the mine in some way or another.  It was a very close-knit micro society that included a school, a church and shops. Apart from managing the output of the  coal mine, her father’s duties also included organizing outings, marriage counseling and everything else to do with the social cohesion of the operation. My aunt Judy remembers one night as a small girl, listening to her father, desperately trying to talk one of his employees out of leaving his wife, and moving in with someone else’s wife.

But times got tough. Coal prices fell, and as a result, the mining town deteriorated. She sees her father grow more frustrated as he sees his town crumble. Eventually he quits his job as coal mine manager and they leave in 1986 to move back to where the family is originally from: the Eastern Cape. Green rolling hills, white waves crashing on a steep rocky coast.

Years later, she returns with her 9 year-old son, Jonathan. Her father is now an elderly man long retired. The New Largo Colliery has been reduced to piles of bricks and rubble. Squatters live in the remaining buildings. Her son is afraid of the dreary place. This is where she grew up. Perfect green lawns, white houses in the sun…

My beautiful pictureA recent twist to this story, the New Largo Mine will be reopened as an open pit mine to quench the South African thirst for coal power:

meat, fear and segregation

photo (1)

The soul travels by horseback. In this age of flight that means -while I have arrived in Cape Town a few days ago- my soul has barely made it across the strait of Gibraltar, galloping on the rocky beaches of Morocco and starting the long trek into the African continent. Do I envy my soul or does it envy me? It has been missing out on comfortable airplane seats and complimentary bags of nuts, also, I think it might have enjoyed the annoying looks of compassion when I informed the 2 American girls on a Christian mission to Tanzania in the seats next to me of my hedonistic tendecies to do illegal substanses and dance to rave music. Ah, well…

Last night we had a braai. Delicious dead animals in copious amounts were devoured with our very South African guests. 3 entire chickens, lamb chops, 2 meter pork sausages, filled with cheese and bacon. I thought I would prepare a salad, and while cutting tomatoes our host comes into the kitchen and curiously asks why I am doing a woman’s job. I answer I quite enjoy the meditative aspect of cutting vegatables. Later he shows me his work-out room. A tiny room crammed full of medieval-looking torture devices. A blackboard showed his progress. He had used names from the tv show Spartacus to name his work-out days. Today was Krixus-day.

A story during dinner: A South African restaurant offers a 1 kilogram steak. If you eat it whole, you get another one for free. A man enters the restaurant and successfully eats both steaks. Afterwards the concerned waiter asks him if he would like to have a salad or something to balance out his diet. The man answers: “If I wanted a salad, I would order a chicken.”

During the drive back we nearly drive into a township. Our driver freaks out, and quickly makes a u-turn. I feel fear. At every “robot”, every dark street, every time a black man gets close to us. I hate myself for it but i can’t help it. Have I been conditioned by our white South African hosts? How much of this fear is imagined and how much is actually true? How many stories of burglaries or murders does it take to permanently instill a feeling of insecurity?

I remember reading about racism, how it’s an onion: at its core fear, around it layers of anger, and finally a skin of habits and rituals.

A fact: In white communities there is 1 policeman for every 11 people, in townships 1 in 50.

Nelson Mandela is in a vegetative state.